Why Don’t Rappers Realize Indie Rock Is Cool?

Apr 24th, 2008 // 46 Comments

AP050906012237.jpgWhy do “top-notch rappers” always work with “cheesy rock’n'rollers?” Loving popular rap while hating popular rock must be difficult for those who want to keep it real while keeping it eclectic. That rappers don’t seem to show the same disdain for mainstream pap like Maroon 5, Fall Out Boy and Gwen Stefani that their white hipster fanbase does must stick in the craw of folks who know that the Flaming Lips are so much better than what’s on the radio. Is it that Timbaland just hasn’t heard the Flaming Lips? Does he need a critic’s guiding hand? Or are they just being commercially cagey? And if the final product is good, is it ok to like it? Does that mean you like harlots like Nelly Furtado now? Thank to that accursed Roots feat Patrick Stump devil of a song, Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley must wrestle with the pop guilt/bullshit that any self-righteous indie snob who puts Kanye West in his top ten list must eventually face.

Now, I don’t really know anything about Fall Out Boy, but I understand that I’m expected not to like them. They wear hair gel, and one of the guys in the band dates Ashlee Simpson, so it’s fair to assume that they suck and that their fans are vapid teeny-boppers whose heads would explode if they heard what real rock ‘n’ roll sounds like. What kind of lame middlebrow loser do the Roots take me for?

I don’t know, one that thinks “real rock’n'roll” would make “vapid teeny-boppers” heads’ explode? Yeah, if these kids heard “Johnny B. Goode” it would be Back To The Future all over again. Or did you mean the Hold Steady?

Why do rappers whose work I hold in such high regard have such terrible taste in rock? The answer started to become clear when I gave “Birthday Girl,” the Roots-Patrick Stump song, a courtesy listen and was greatly disturbed to discover that I liked it. It’s catchy; Stump has the right voice for the mellow hook, and the Roots’ estimable rhythm section gives a sharp edge to what otherwise would have been a straightforward mid-tempo rock song.

…Stump et Al. are seen by their hip-hop collaborators, I think, as living samples, picked out of the musical spectrum because their voices have some distinctive quality that the Roots or Kanye West or Dr. Dre want on their track. And, indeed, all three of those artists are known for eclectic record collections–the first person sampled on Kanye’s last album is Elton John–and for perfectionism. Stefani has spoken about recording and rerecording her two lines on “Let Me Blow Your Mind” for hours before Dr. Dre was satisfied, which is illustrative. He was perfecting a Sassy Temptress effect, just as Kanye used Chris Martin to add a little Gripping Melancholy to his track about returning to his hometown of Chicago. Adam Levine has an indisputably fantastic voice for the wistful soul of “Heard ‘Em Say.” In fact, our civilization would be better off if he sang only hooks and covers, though his projects should still be subject to regulatory oversight.

My god, is he grudgingly beginning to accept that how music feels is a little more important to some people than how cool it is? Has the rebirthing begun? Well, not quite.

If any major hip-hop producers are reading this, get in touch; I have lots of great ideas! Songs like Jay-Z’s “99 Problems,” Dead Prez’s “Hell Yeah,” and countless Beastie Boys tracks demonstrate that distorted guitar riffs can make for a great hip-hop sound, provided they’re kept sparse and inserted into a song with surgical precision–and, come on, Johnny Greenwood and Jack White can’t even tune up without laying down the most killer sparse-surgical riff you’ve ever heard! On the vocal side, Wayne Coyne and Thom Yorke could contribute ethereally beautiful and ethereally nightmarish hooks, respectively. (The Roots actually do sample Radiohead on Game Theory’s “Atonement,” but it’s not at the front of the mix.)

In these last days of the record business as we know it, established indie-rockers are as good a sales bet as anyone else. So why not get the best rap acts and the best indie acts in the studio together? It might produce some great songs, it could move a lot of units, and–I say this with significantly less condescension than I would have a few weeks ago–it might introduce some vapid middlebrow teeny-boppers to bands they’ll like even more than Fall Out Boy.

A) They’re not doing this for your whiny, self-conscious ass, and B) indie-rock collabos with rappers will not sound like “99 Problems.” They will sound, at best, like this.

Falling for Fall Out Boy [Slate]
R.E.M. – Radio Song (Film Is On Version) [Youtube]

  1. bcapirigi

    I still curse the day that some unknowingly malevolent oral surgeon ruined everything that was good in the world by taking those fucking wires off Kanye West’s stupid ugly trap.

    Also, might the collaboration thing have something to do with the size of Fall Out Boy’s fanbase? I don’t know, just a thought.

  2. Ned Raggett

    Now, I don’t really know anything about Fall Out Boy, but I understand that I’m expected not to like them.

    I can’t get past this. It’s one of those reminders I get every so often that makes me go, “Oh right, people like this exist.”

  3. Audif Jackson Winters III

    “I tried to turn it off (TURN IT OFF!)”

    The worst moment in pop music history?

  4. AL

    Slate is good for about one silly music-related article a month (see last month’s essay on whether “excessive lyrics” are “ruining pop music” [www.slate.com]). These pieces are invariably written by people who are not music writers by trade. Why Slate even bothers running these, when they have a capable music journalist like Jody Rosen working for them, is beyond me.

  5. natepatrin

    “indie-rock collabos with rappers will not sound like “99 Problems.” They will sound, at best, like ["Radio Song"].”

    Or, y’know… this.

    (Not to defend that article, though. Craig Finn sounds fine sparring with P.O.S. or Slug, but he’d sound kind of outta place on a Kanye record.)

  6. Chris N.

    Could sound like this, though:

  7. jetblackturd

    Most rappers don’t care what white people think is cool – they just wanna make more money! Apart from Chuck D. Yaay Chuck D!

  8. Lax Danja House

    haha “real rock n’ roll”. If only those hippety hoppers would just apply themselves and learn a real instrument, they could be like Jimi Hendrix or Lenny Kravitz!

  9. encyclopediablack

    What about Handsome Boy Modeling School?
    Wasn’t Cat Power was on the last El-P record? Or does it not count if indie rockers work with white hip-hop artists?

  10. JohnDoe

    “Loving popular rap while hating popular rock must be difficult for those who want to keep it real while keeping it eclectic.”

    Line of the year. I almost threw up in my eggs this morning reading that craptastic piece.

    and for God’s sake, can we stop the Roots-worship? Sure – good band, some decent songs. But if one more fellow-caucasion tells me that they hate all modern hip-hop/R&B, except for “my man questlove,”….

  11. Anonymous

    Has this guy heard of anyone else besides The Roots? The article was all blah blah blah The Roots blah blahThe Roots blah blah bleezy blah The Roots Fall Out Boy.

  12. iantenna

    i think the first problem is that dude is still listening to, and liking, the roots. and, oh yeah, forget working with such popular rock acts as fall out boy and maroon 5 and start working with such under-the-radar hip acts like radiohead and the white stripes? come on dude.

  13. Al Shipley

    @pantycrickets: Well to be fair, The Roots are the ‘current hit’ (which isn’t even being released as a single in this country) that the article is being pegged to. Really he might have a point if “Birthday Girl” sounded anything like any Fall Out Boy song.

  14. Anonymous


    You would rather that Kanye still be spittin through wires?

    That kind of thing can drive a sane man bizzerk.

    He’s much better with the wires off.

  15. dippinkind

    i concur with the general opinion that the first thing fella needs to do if he’s so concerned about being “cool” is to stop listening to the roots. also, i too have lots of great ideas! my latest ones: T.I. collaborating with Brad Paisley, or M.O.P. with Toby Keith.

  16. Poubelle

    Ugh to that article.

    I remember awhile ago Kanye West praising Franz Ferdinand and calling them “white crunk” or something along those lines, so his tastes haven’t always run contrary to hipsters. Then again, Franz has always managed to include little things like “memorable hooks” and “enjoyability” that hip-hop seems to value more than hipsters do.

  17. janine

    How have y’all left out this?

  18. spinachdip

    @encyclopediablack: HBMS is (chiefly) half Asian and half black, right?

    But more to your point, Miho Hatori of Cibo Matto’s worked with HBMS, Beasties and Gorillaz, who are sort of hip hop.

    And more to the Slate article’s point, my heart kinda sunk when I heard that Jurassic 5 track featuring Dave Matthews. Seriously, I try not to be a snob, but that shit is inexcusable.

  19. mackro

    Answer: hip-hop heard The Slack Album (Jay-Z mashed with Pavement) and ran screaming.

  20. janine

    @janine: I know that the Foo Fighters aren’t indie, but that’s my favorite Rap/Rock collabo of all time (that I can think of right now). Whatever happened to Sir Mix-A-Lot’s collaboration with the Presidents of the United States of America?

  21. Halfwit

    Admittedly, I haven’t read the article… but isn’t this whole argument more or less negated by “Stronger”?

  22. Halfwit

    Also… not exactly “modern” and not exactly “rap” — but, dude… the Fix remix with Fishbone:

  23. WeAreYourFek

    “They will sound, at best, like this.”

    I beg to differ:

  24. Anonymous

    Haven’t we already heard the argument that indie rockers can’t handle black music? Wouldn’t that then, sensibly, make them unable to handle real life black PEOPLE?

  25. extracrispy

    I totally agree with this article. “Smell Yo Dick” would have been so much better if the chorus was sung by Karen O.

  26. spinachdip

    @Halfwit: Or an entire album co-produced by Jon Brion?

    Or the Roots reworking a song by Cody Chesnutt, who’s indie in every sense of the word? Though I suppose Chesnutt doesn’t count because he’s black.

  27. Clevertrousers

    Is it me or is the Roots just this generation’s Fishbone? WTF do I know… I’ve been listening to the goddamn Tigerlillies all week. How come no hip hop producers wanna collabo with them?

  28. Clevertrousers

    @Halfwit: Oh SNAP… I need to read all the posts before commenting!

    But don’t forget this:

    Seriously, this is where the Roots are headed… Beware!

  29. Anonymous

    I think the core problem is that even people that have a fundamental understanding of one type of music (which is a small fraction of people in general), typically are confused by all other genres. Most rappers do have terrible taste in rock music, but most rock musicians have terrible taste in rap music. Why do you think Snoop still has a career? There are people that understand Sean Price AND the Super Furry Animals, but so few that the odds of it ever spurring a decent collabo are slim. It happens, but with the frequency of broken clocks telling us the accurate time.

  30. Anonymous

    …and ditto to everyone that wants to cock punch white people that bring up Talib Kweli/the Roots/any other OkayPlayer granola during rap conversations.

  31. rogerniner

    Wait. Slate paid someone to write an article summed up as thus:
    “Why won’t the rappers I like team up with the rockers I like? It’s not faaaaaiiiiiiirrr :( “

    Paid him. PAID HIM.

    I’m going to lie down now.

  32. rogerniner

    @Chris N.: This is the standard that Sir Duggery Douche might be holding the imaginary collabo with, and it is a fantastic track.

    JESUS! Watching that made me realize that that was my very first exposure to ska… and Fishbone for that matter! Wow. Thanks Annette!

  33. natepatrin

    @StuntKockSteeev: Jesus christ. Where are all these annoying dilletante white folks ruining rap for other white folks the rest of us by actually making the terrible mistake of saying good things about the Roots*? I haven’t been harangued by any, unless… unless I am one.

    *seriously, did a Fender Rhodes kill your father or something?

  34. natepatrin

    @natepatrin: shoulda been a comedy strikethrough through “other white folks”. Ah, crap.

  35. Halfwit

    @Clevertrousers: For those too young to remember… THIS is what HBO used to show before “Oz” changed the game.

    And, yes… growing up with stuff like this is why there’s a seemingly endless feedback loop of kitschy nostalgia within the hipster community.

  36. Anonymous

    @natepatrin: Hearing white rap fans (of which I am one) say nice things about the Roots* is like hearing fifty year old bald men say nice things about the Beatles. The overall statement is more than likely true, but the probable statement behind it (“Hip Hop is Dead” is the new “Why can’t new bands write songs the way we did in our day”) is a complete farce. That wasn’t a shot at anyone in particular, it was a fact arrived at after meeting thousands of people that think Slug is a better rapper than Scarface. I think there’s enough of that stereotype running around that it’s not like I’m some ultra-combative BrooklynVegan commentator or anything.

    *And defending the Roots is always easier than defending Talib Kweli’s inability to rhyme on beat.

  37. Nunya B

    Do you really want Kanye or whoever to collaborate with the Shins? Gwen Stefani’s first album was more entertaining than anything they’ve ever produced and while she may be “commercial pap” I’d much rather hear a collaboration that actually works instead of an OMG SUPERCOLLAB designed to cater to people who aren’t easily pleased.

  38. bcapirigi

    i wonder where neon neon falls in this discussion…

    also, am i the only one that always gets fishbone and lungfish confused?

  39. natepatrin

    @StuntKockSteeev: Enh, fair enough, I guess. I should probably stop posting when I’m stressed.

  40. Captain Wrong

    I’ll take the Judgment Night soundtrack for $500, Alex.

  41. janine

    @StuntKockSteeev: “Most rappers do have terrible taste in rock music…”

    I wouldn’t say that’s true. To the producers and DJs I’ve interacted with, they listen to everything with Hip Hop ears: timbre and breaks, timbre and breaks, and that is all. Who cares if it feels good going into your ears?

  42. encyclopediablack

    @spinachdip: Well, my point was Cat Power, The Mars Volta and others were on White People, thus the indie rock meets hip-hop collaboration.

  43. rogerniner

    @Halfwit: At least I learned how to skank at an early age. God knows what I would have become if I was old enough to be allowed into “Monster Squad”

  44. Lawson

    I think this ‘story’ is mainly an indictment on forced music journalism in general – y’know, “copy’s due, oh shit i better think up of two things in music completely unrelated and write on them”. there is a constant stream of articles like this that are so… artificial. like no one actually cares about this issue (maybe they do – 44 comments or smoething). good music writing talks to something important, relevant.

  45. Crane

    The thing is, it’s exactly the paragraph about “I know I shouldn’t like them, because teeny-boppers like them” which convinced me that the whole thing is tongue-in-cheek; admittedly, it’s not written by someone who is ace on the hip hop scene, but this is clearly facetious — at worst, the author is mocking his own stance as a hipper-then-thou knee-jerk rocker.

  46. I happy to read this article, Thank you very much.

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